Film Music Review
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John Williams Greatest Hits

Music composed by John Williams.

17 Tracks (Playing Time = 66:58)

Music performed by the Philharmonisches Orchester des Staatstheaters Cottbus conducted by Evan Christ. Engineered by Hans-Ulrich Holst.

Telos Music 165

Rating: ****


If you were going to record an album of music by one of the most famous film composers of the past century, what would you choose? Such is the dilemma that no doubt crossed the mind of Evan Christ the young conductor of this new release from Telos. Christ is the General Music Director of the Philharmonisches Orchester des Staatstheaters Cottbus, an ensemble that he has worked hard to grow into one of Germany’s fine regional (located in Brandenburg) orchestras. He has done that by innovative programming that includes a great deal of contemporary music.

In January of 2010, the orchestra performed one of its first all John Williams concerts to a sold out crowd. The composer’s music has since entered the standard repertoire of the ensemble and resulted in the present release which comes a few months before the orchestra’s centenary anniversary in October, and the maestro’s 80th birthday.

Christ’s choices here feature several standard Williams works that often are the major recorded pieces for surveys of his music. One expects the familiar marches from SUPERMAN and RAIDER’S OF THE LOST ARK
(where “ Marion’s Theme” is played with less overtly Romantic rubato), and the “Imperial March” (a truly stellar performance) from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. There are the themes for Yoda and JAWS, the “Flying Theme” from E.T. (a rich and well-shaped performance in a class with the London Symphony Sony release) and of course the STAR WARS “Main Title”—presented as an almost anticipatory final “encore” where brass are heard within a more typical orchestral sound (trumpets feel just a tad too far back in the sound picture at first, but it still works). The piece seems just a bit fast at times which makes the lyrical contrasts more interesting. The performance is still convincing and vividly captured. But Christ has also tossed in non-film music in recordings of both the Olympic Fanfare and Liberty Fanfare.

Half of the disc is given over to character music from the first two HARRY POTTER films. The album opens with “Harry’s Wondrous World” in a very warm performance. The scores appear to be those available commercially and one will note the more prominent wind work in the second half of this selection where the balance is just a bit different than its score recording. That said Christ’s performance here is relaxed allowing the music to flow beautifully in a slightly ambient acoustic. (In other words, he has a fine sense of the musical needs coupled with the realities of the recording venue. As a personal, having heard some of these selections in Williams’ Boston concerts, one is always struck by how much is going on in the orchestra that you can hear better in the concert versions where the orchestration is allowed to play out as written unaffected by electronic tampering.) “Fawkes the Phoenix” is perhaps one of the composer’s finest character themes and it receives a fine performance that is simply magical here. “Chamber of Secrets” is equally impressive both in its performance and dramatic music making. That level of expectation will follow in the subsequent selections “Gilderoy Lockhart,” “Fluffy’s Harp” (perhaps the oddest choice but it shows off the ensemble’s harpist), “Nimbus 2000” (a tour-de-force for the superb winds of the orchestra), “Hedwig’s Theme” (one of the disc’s many highlights), and “Dobby the Elf” (another odd choice, but still well done).

The ambient space the orchestra performs in makes the recording of the Olympic Fanfare really quite good. Great detail in the orchestra can also be heard in low clarinet sounds that often are buried in even Williams’ and Kunzel’s recordings of the work. Crisp articulation also helps overcome the acoustics of the hall which are a reminder that the ensemble has worked through and gets this music.

The Liberty Fanfare is also quite good though there are a couple of moments when the music feels like it might teeter out of control. And the performance of the “Theme” from JAWS is even better than the ones that were done with the Boston Pops. The opening for the music from SUPERMAN is perhaps a bit too slow, but when it takes off it is dead spot on.

There are a number of Williams releases coming out in February which will be mostly repackaging of Sony and Decca-owned recordings. What makes the Telos disc special is that one can really feel the commitment by the performers who take the music seriously and seem to understand its merits. The Harry Potter selections are spread throughout the disc which also helps provide a proper sense of variety to the album presentation as a whole.

Again, if you do not appreciate concert performances of this music, this will not be worth your time, but there is a lot of fine music making here that really makes for a great listen.

For those of us who grew up wearing out our STAR WARS LPs and Gerhardt re-recordings, there will be moments here that bring back memories when we hoped that more of John Williams’ music would be recorded. In Christ and the Cottbus ensemble we get the best of what happens when a conductor believes in the music and the orchestra has the technical ability coupled with appropriate musicianship to pull it off. The release feels less like a cash-in hurried endeavor and more like the sort of dedicated release one would expect for far more serious classical recordings. A good rule of thumb for these sorts of releases is that as you listen there should be no “surprises” that pull you out of the music (like bad ensemble, intonation, or odd tempo choices). A couple of personal taste quibbles noted above, these are really fine performances that show off the virtuosity of the various sections and do justice to the music.

Telos has also managed to capture the space this orchestra performs in very well. One does wonder how it sounds when playing to filled seats with bodies soaking up some of the sound a bit more but once your ear adjusts to the hall and the orchestra this becomes less of an issue and helps make this a superb release.

The bigger question is will the success of this title perhaps lead to a second follow-up, or perhaps a Goldsmith release. It would certainly be something to look forward too for fans of orchestral film music compilations.

This is a release you will want to pop into your good stereo, turn off the lights, and turn up the volume.


-- Reviewed by Steven A. Kennedy, 26 January 2012

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Also recommended is this older 2 CD release...

John Williams - Greatest Hits 1969 - 1999

John Williams - Greatest Hits, 1969-1999

















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